What do Howard Hughes, John Nash and Kurt Cobain have in common besides the fact that they were geniuses in their respective ways? They all suffered from mental illness at some point in their lives. However, their personal problems were pushed aside during their prime times in the spotlight. Only after years of struggle did the public learn of their experiences. Although their disorders may have been amplified through news media or movies such as “The Aviator” and “A Beautiful Mind,” the portrayal of their mental illnesses may come off as distorted from reality and even be perceived negatively by audiences.
Stigma has made mental illnesses (and people who have them) notorious. The fear of being labeled mentally ill causes patients to avoid seeking help, perhaps out of fear of humiliation or shame. These frets may seem nonsensical, but they are real. The stereotype of mental illness not only affects those with disorders but also their friends and families. They may inadvertently treat the patient differently, perhaps walking on eggshells around them, or be insensitive, and their behavior can be attributed to the perception they have received through stigma. So, how can we eradicate stigma?
Active Minds is a national organization that develops and supports student-run mental health awareness, education and advocacy chapters on campuses nationwide. The group’s mission is to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness and create a comfortable environment for open conversation about mental health. The UC Berkeley chapter formed in 2007.
Because awareness is essential to eradicate stigma, this semester was filled with many activities. Andy Behrman, author of “Electroboy: a Memoir of Mania” and a bipolar disorder survivor, was a guest speaker on campus on March 10 during the Mind and Body Awareness Week in collaboration with the Tang Center. He spoke of his experiences with shock therapy and suicide attempts. Active Minds also hosted an art show on the theme of “Dis-Connect” on April 12, where various art forms were utilized to express the views on stigma of mental illness within the community.
But the work is never done. We must continue to spread awareness. Active Minds is currently working with the Health Workers Program to initiate a Mental Health Educational Program in the residence halls where students struggling with mental illnesses can turn for guidance. The co-president of Active Minds facilitated two sections of the DeCal “Understanding Depression,” with psychology department chair Stephen Hinshaw serving as the instructor of record, that focused on personal accounts of depression. Lastly, Active Minds is looking to start a 5K run next semester to raise mental health awareness.
Active Minds was created by people experiencing difficulties with the stigma surrounding mental health for people having difficulties coping with stigma. The first step to solving any issue is to promote awareness, and that is the purpose of Active Minds. Ask, talk, listen. Every voice counts, and only you can make the difference. Break the stigma.
Negeen Farsio is a member of Active Minds on campus.